By Professor Sir Hilary Beckles —
The CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) joins with all citizens of the English-speaking Caribbean and all others who understand and promote racial justice and equality in observing 1st August as Emancipation Day. We do this at a most important and inspiring time in our history when the Black Lives Matter and Reparations movements are sweeping the globe. We do this also while the COVID-19 pandemic is aggressively ripping the plasters from the sores of racial injustice and social and economic inequality in many of the societies in our hemisphere – and elsewhere.
The observation of this Emancipation period combines commemoration and celebration – commemoration of the epic struggles of our ancestors on the mother continent Africa, in the Caribbean and elsewhere to rid the world of the scourge of chattel slavery. We are reminded that it took nearly a century after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 before the final vestiges of this crime against humanity were eradicated in our region. We celebrate that achievement.
In the CARICOM region, 1st August 1834 is considered by many as the birth of the Caribbean. But it is again an opportunity to reflect on the issues associated with this birth. The CRC does not tire of stating the historical fact that the British government rewarded its planters, enforcers, investors and all others who promoted and profited from the enslavement of Africans with the sum of twenty million pounds – equivalent today of approximately two and a half trillion pounds. And further, that the debt the British government incurred to pay this sum, equivalent to sixty percent of its then gross national product, was not retired until 2015. This is important as it provides one of the bases for the CARICOM reparations claim against Britain.
But this is not the end of the historical importance of this emancipation period. The British Emancipation Act of 1833 made the British government irrefutably complicit in the enslavement of Africans, for that Act recognized in British law for the first time, that Africans were chattel, property which could be bought and sold, property for the loss of which they paid enslavers.
The assessment of the value of their chattel in the Caribbean by the planters was forty seven million pounds of which the British government could only provide twenty million. The remaining twenty seven million was paid to the planters through the period of apprenticeship where the former enslaved were forced to provide free labour to the plantations for the first four years of their supposed freedom. In other words, the enslaved paid with their sweat and blood more than fifty percent of the supposed cost of ‘their freedom’. In the Caribbean region, many will understand the phrase and interpretation of ‘put on put’. The case for reparations cannot be made stronger.
It is these considerations that prompted Sir Arthur Lewis, who we consider as the father of the reparations movement in the Caribbean, to forcibly impress on Britain that it has an unpaid debt to the region of two hundred years of free labour. It is that debt for which the CARICOM governments now demand settlement.
This period of celebration allows us all to bask in the creativity of our people, to recognize our contributions to world culture through intellectual pursuits, the arts and religion and sports and political organization – the barbarity of our past oppression, notwithstanding. The reflection must also provide the basis for the shaping of our future through development planning and the preparedness and commitment to build regional societies in which the challenges of poverty, poor health and education, poor housing and infrastructure are eradicated and our people are enabled to live the lives envisioned by those who struggled to make emancipation a reality.
The CRC again wishes all a meaningful commemoration and celebration in this Emancipation period.